Addressing Wildlife Demand Reduction in China

The Chinese government, with the support of international wildlife NGOs, must implement a systematic approach to curbing the demand for wildlife products. A seemingly arbitrary cherry-picking of species with mixed motives—like that of curbing corruption—have garbled the message of wildlife conservation in China. For the past three decades, environmental concerns have taken a back seat to China’s record-breaking economical development. It is crucial that Chinese traditional culture and their differing valuesregarding the natural world be considered when creating a multi-faceted campaign to address this unsustainable increase in consumption. Before any attempt to address wildlife demand in China can begin, one must attempt to understand the differences in Western and Eastern valuations of the natural world. Excessively moralistic arguments on the value of wildlife will be futile because conceptions vary hugely. A utilitarian and human-centric view of nature may seem callous and backward to some Westerners, but it is not objectively immoral. As Swan and Conrad of California State University, Sacramento observe,

“If rules and policies designed to regulate wildlife consumption are imposed without regard for the values and commitments of people at the local level who are to be bound by them, then the moralism of environmental advocates may be at cross-purposes with the legitimate aim of protecting environmental goods” (2).

The deplorable conditions of bear farms where bile is harvested from their stomachs are make for cause outrage in the U.S. and Europe, but are they targeting the right people? Citizens in China may be largely unaware of how these products are sourced. It also does not mean that the use of these products is illogical and purely barbaric. Acid in bear bile has been proven to be effective in the treatments of some liver diseases (Swan & Conrad 13). Advocates must consider traditional systems of belief when addressing these issues so that suitable substitutes can be found and these cruel trades can be stopped. Approaching from a position of understanding is essential if progress in combating the mistreatment and misuse of wildlife is to be made.

Video of Bear Farms in China

What is needed is not just a broad-based international campaign, but one that addresses the distinct cultural idiosyncrasis at the local level. In a survey concerning consumption habits in five major Chinese cities, one observes consumption habits that vary drastically between Guangzhou in the South (with consumption doubling in 8 years) and Beijing (halving during the same period) (Zhang & Li 2014). These different results show a clear need for a more targeted approach to demand reduction. A public education campaign that works well in one region may not in another. Similarly, a government ban on shark fin at official banquets (WildAid, Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand in China 23), may not have the effect in a remote southern province like Guangzhou that it does in the capital city. Consumption of wildlife may have a stronger cultural basis in the south than it does in the north as well. The above studies may support these arguments, but further cultural understanding is necessary before a successful campaign can be designed.

Synthetic Substitutes and Food Safety

Some believe the problems are too time sensitive for such a drawn-out approach. Consideration should be given then to the variety of substitutes that can be used in consumption. Just as a vegetarian may crave turkey and opt for a tofu substitute, similarly substitutes can be used in traditional Chinese medicine or consumption for food in China. The increasing availability of viable substitutes can be paired with the growing concern over food safety in China. Because they are apex predators, shark meat often has unhealthy levels of mercury, and its regular consumption could lead to serious health problems. An education campaign on the dangers of shark meat (among other wildlife consumables) to personal health could have significant demand reducing effects on a population that is growingly concerned with the safety of the products they buy.


The synthetic substitute approach is equally viable for traditional Chinese medicines. According to Swan and Conrad “many practitioners of TCM now encourage the development and use of alternative synthetic or non-endangered ingredients from the traditional lists of remedies.” The problem however, is that “these attitudes have yet to fully trickle down into the preferences of consumers of TCM” (7). If users of traditional Chinese medicine can be made to understand by their practitioners that these synthetic drugs are just as effective as their traditional counterparts and perhaps even more affordable, reduction in demand for these products will follow. The important thing is not to push Western drugs with a attitude of cultural and scientific superiority, but to market them as carefully crafted substitutes to medicines that they currently use. The issue of demand reduction is complex. Although the campaign is international in scope, approaches must be flexible at the cultural and local level. What is particularly evident in China is that a campaign that works in one city may have little effect in another. Cultural concerns must be carefully regarded if progress is to be made in the fight to curb the demand for wildlife products. Sources:

  • Kyle Swan, Kristin Conrad, “The Conflict between Chinese Cultural and Environmental Values in Wildlife Consumption,” in Routledge Handbook of Environment and Society in Asia, 2014.
  • Whitcraft, S., Hofford, A., Hilton, P., O’Malley, M., Jaiteh, V. and P. Knights. “Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand in China,” WildAid, San Francisco, CA, 2014.
  •  Li Zhang, Feng Yin, “Wildlife consumption and conservation awareness in China: a long way to go,” Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, 2014.
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